A lost love
What happens when an adventure gets in the way of a relationship? Seven years ago I left London and a boyfriend to cycle around the coast of Britain. What might have happened had I not gone?
We met four months before I was due to leave, both of us working as mechanics at our local community bike workshop. I’d always noticed him, his permanently smiling eyes, his kind face, the self-assured but modest way he carried himself. But I hadn’t known his name until the day we ended up sitting in the pub next to each other, the only available seat being next to me, the girl who was drinking the same thing as him. That’s where our conversation started. And at the end of the night, we didn’t want it to stop, and we became an item.
I almost felt like I had to resist it – I didn’t want to get involved with someone this close to my adventure, fiercely determined not to spend the entire trip thinking about someone else. But our delight in each other grew, each minute spent in the others’ company an adventure in itself.
Our relationship was vastly inappropriate in so many ways – he 17 years my senior, a divorcee, me a flighty 20-something, still enjoying the buzz of freedom that I’d been gifted when my previous relationship ended. “Let’s just see how it goes,” he would say in response to my worries. And we did, those wonderful four months that followed bringing us steadily closer.
The day before I left, we sat cross-legged on his living room carpet. He held out his hand, then opened the clasped fingers, revealing a small orange tube. I grinned. “Lip-salve!” “Well, I love kissing you…” he replied, handing me the gift. It was the kind he used daily, his lips always tasting vaguely of the menthol contained in it. So now each time I used it, it would be as if I were being kissed by him.
In his other hand was a small green bag, containing a pair of delicate earrings. I felt suddenly embarrassed – our short liaison hadn’t warranted such a gift, and even though they were small and practical, good for wearing on my bike, I didn’t know how to react. They remained firmly in the bag; the lip-salve had been perfect, and gift enough.
Later, I stood in the shower, my tears mingling with the hot water that doused my face. He’d gone on his night shift, and I was to post the keys through the letter box as I left the next morning. I had wandered aimlessly around the flat, all my belongings packed neatly into the three bags that would serve me for the next 10 weeks. Suddenly I didn’t want to go. Why was I doing this? If I stayed, we could continue as we were, slowly falling in love.
He called the next morning, suddenly wanting to wave me off from Tower Bridge. “I have an overwhelming urge to give you one last hug” he said. “I can be there in 20 minutes?” But I didn’t let him; we’d already said goodbye, and in my mind, that was it. I would not let my sadness linger.
Two days later, it was me who did the calling. It was one of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make. My adventure was only 48 hours old – no time at all, yet I already felt so far removed from normal life. I was finally doing it, the thing that I’d been thinking about and planning for so long. And it had only been four or five texts that he’d sent me – hardly any, yet each one had made me pause, instantly bringing me back to my past reality, threatening to burst the bubble of my adventure. I couldn’t keep it up – I refused to feel like this for the next 10 weeks. I had to break it off.
“Baby, you can’t keep calling me – I have to do this alone.” Silence. He understood. We hung up, and I fell back on the bed, head in my hands. I felt wretched, my chest caving in with emotion. Yet there was nothing I could do. It had to be this way.
We spoke briefly a week later, the night of the London riots. He worked as a fireman and I was instantly terrified for him, but he’d been off-duty that weekend, thankfully immune to the madness that was gripping the capital. From the safety of my Bridlington guest house it was hard to imagine what was going on back home. “Are you calling to dump me again?” he teased, only partly hiding the hurt underneath.
Then a text message as I was cycling around the peninsula at North Berwick two weeks later: Sorry for texting. I was just riding the canal path and it made me think nice thoughts of you. I stopped by the harbour-side and read and re-read it, ecstatic to hear from him, remorseful that he’d felt the need to apologise.
It wasn’t until I reached Thurso that we spoke properly. It had been three weeks since I’d left, and a day off in the most northerly town on the mainland had given me time to ring. “Hello.” He teased that I shouldn’t be calling. We swapped banal stories and I suddenly found myself unable to talk through my tears. “I didn’t mean…” How could I express what I’d been thinking for the last few weeks, that I hadn’t wanted to break it off, that I felt horrible for having made that choice? I couldn’t stand it that he might think I’d made that decision lightly, that I’d hurt him on purpose. We both wept a little. I felt better after that.
He had said that when I reached Aberdovey, he might join me for a few days. This was where his childhood seaside holidays had been spent, his grandma’s town. I’d called him the week before I got there, desperate for his company. “Will you come with me?” I’d asked, my voice small. He stayed quiet for a few moments, then, “I don’t think so.” It was easy to blame it on his work schedule and the train timetable, but I was crushed.
I struggled as I made my way down the coast of Wales then, unable to clear my mind of the feeling that he should have been there. I tried to blame my melancholy on the hills and the headwind – both had been relentless since crossing the border. Or on the physical discomfort caused by an acute strain in my heel and wrist. This was the excuse I gave to my hosts that evening – a colleague’s parents, who had been so kind, so welcoming, giving me tea and cake while I soaked my sore muscles in the bath. I’d spoken to him as I’d walked down to the beach, but it was a brief conversation, one that I couldn’t concentrate on. That evening I made my excuses, citing exhaustion from the cycling as the reason for an early night. I slowly climbed the stairs to my lofty bedroom, then sat down on the bed and cried.
By the time I’d reached England again the hurt had started to fade. We texted occasionally, and it was no longer accompanied by the gut-wrenching feeling. He had a boat on the south coast, and this time, our planned rendezvous worked. Cycling away from Weymouth the day we were due to meet, I was overcome with nerves, unable to think about anything else as I rode the 50 miles to Lymington. I arrived early and sat on the harbour wall, listening to the halyards as they banged against the masts on the rows and rows of boats that sat in the marina. I didn’t know what to do with myself, how I should sit when he arrived, whether I should go over to him or wait for him to come to me. Things that I’d never had to consider before with him. I tried to picture his face but found that I couldn’t.
Then there he was, striding towards me from across the quay, and I jumped up and smiled nervously, waiting as he approached, holding his cheeks in my hands as I kissed him, just so it was out of the way. Then a nine-week hug. “Hi. Sorry about the boat. I’ve booked us a hotel.” He had intended to sail here from Chichester harbour, then the next day we would return, sailing together back to Northney marina – it would just be like taking a ferry across the mouth of a river, but instead of a ferry it would be my own private yacht, and instead of the mouth of a river it would be Southampton Water and the 20 miles either side. But wind and tides had made it impossible for him to get the boat out of the harbour, so he’d driven to meet me. Tomorrow he’d drive back to the boat, and I’d cycle around the Isle of Wight, then we’d spend a second night together on the water, stationary in the marina.
He was laughing as he opened our bedroom door, amused that the only room available had a four-poster bed. The building was old, the floor creaking as we acquainted ourselves with the room and with each other.
Later we went to the pub to eat dinner. I felt shy of him, having lived another life for the past 60 days, one that he’d been utterly separate from. And him – what was it like for him, to suddenly be here with me, becoming a tiny part of my adventure when just yesterday he’d gone to work as normal? His familiar face was no longer familiar. There were 3500 miles between us.
He was astonished by my appetite as we sat snugly below deck on the still water of the marina the next evening, eating fish and chips straight out of their paper. I’d polished off my fish and a cheese fry, as well as all my chips and half of his, then sat there, rendered immobile by my full stomach. The gentle rocking of the boat hastened sleep, and I woke the next morning to say goodbye once more.
This time it was only for a week – a short few days’ ride stood between me and the finish line. It was the final day when he met me a couple of miles shy of Tower Bridge, more proud of me than I was of myself. Perhaps it hadn’t kicked in that I was actually finishing – all I’d done was ride my bike for the past 72 days. I alone knew what that had really meant, what strength and courage it had taken, but also how simple it had really been.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t gone, but had stayed, letting myself fall head over heels with this man. Perhaps we’d be inseparable, maybe planning a life together. It didn’t last after I returned. I’d broken us up at the very moment that we should have been paying each other the most attention; the time when the flames of passion either burst into love or simply flicker with affection. I found myself unable to give myself fully to him, holding him at arm’s length, adoring him yet resisting him. What would have happened had I not gone away? I will never know.